Pictures for the People

A series at the Walker reveals the revolutionary power of Brazil's Cinema Novo

"I, Gypsy Lord, Master of Clouds and Time, can work miracles with life." So proclaims the magician and emcee of a wandering carnival that has just rolled into a small town in northern Brazil. "I can make the dreams of all Brazilians come true," he declares. "I can make snow fall in Brazil!" Then he gives the command, and suddenly, there in the little tent, accompanied by the strains of "White Christmas," snow indeed falls in Brazil--although the snow tastes suspiciously like flaked coconut.

This moment near the beginning of Bye Bye Brazil, directed by Carlos Diegues in 1979, exemplifies many of the artistic tenets of a Brazilian film movement called Cinema Novo. We're among mostly poor people, watching a performer who mediates the worlds of fiction and reality. He puts on a somewhat silly show that celebrates Brazilian life in all its complexity, before leading us through the netherworlds of art, crime, and politics. Sixteen Brazilian films will be screening throughout the month of October at the Walker Art Center, and though they range widely in style and content, almost all feature a similar sense of fierce independence and political engagement.

Cinema Novo rose out of the ashes of Vera Cruz, a São Paulo-based studio that flourished briefly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Consciously modeled on MGM, Vera Cruz produced a handful of polished pretty-people pictures in imitation of the films from the north that ruled the market then as now. The critics, polemicists, and filmmakers who emerged followed Vera Cruz's demise in a period of optimistic "developmentalism" and asserted their independence from this studio system. Instead of embracing glamour, they flaunted their connections to poor and rural people, and their attraction to indigenous traditions. Leaving the soundstage behind, they at all times maintained the right to pick up the camera and reveal the world around them, no matter what the outcome or consequence.

As Glauber Rocha put it in a 1965 essay (anthologized in Randal Johnson and Robert Stam's excellent Brazilian Cinema): "Wherever one finds filmmakers prepared to film the truth and oppose the hypocrisy and repression of intellectual censorship there is the living spirit of Cinema Novo; wherever filmmakers, of whatever age or background, place their cameras and their profession in the service of the great causes of our time there is the spirit of Cinema Novo." This statement continues to animate Brazilian filmmakers, including Walter Salles Jr., the director of Central Station, who selected the films for this Walker series.

Rocha put his own camera to the contemplation of popular revolt in 1964's Black God, White Devil (7:00, October 13), which tracks a beaten-down cowherd and his spouse across the vast Brazilian backcountry. The pair are fleeing a murder rap across the sertão, in order to join an Afro-Catholic resistance party led by Saint Sebastian, the "Black God" guru. The "hypocrisy and repression" here come from the dominant, white church, which acts in the interests of the landowners. This conflict leads to an apocalyptic showdown--a shootout full of blood and fury. Then alliances suddenly shift and nothing is as it has seemed. In the end, everyone sets off once again through Rocha's magnificent wide-angle landscape. The film's profound connection to the Brazilian people and land also emerges through Heitor Villa-Lobos's vibrant guitar playing and singing on the soundtrack, which comments on the action as it happens, responding to the features of the land and the sea coast.

Bye Bye Brazil (introduced by Walter Salles, 7:00, October 16), produced a decade and a half later in 1979, takes place in much the same landscape, and finds writer-director Carlos Diegues celebrating the small acts of independence that persist during the pillaging of the country's cultural and natural resources by foreign interests. The Gypsy Lord's traveling carnival is a colorful crew, comprising a smoldering sexpot named Salomé, a strong mute man named Sparrow, and a young accordionist with his bulbously pregnant wife. Yet they find themselves powerless to entertain in towns that have been occupied by the talisman that is television. Wherever they can scare up an audience, they continue to stage their bumptious show. Even when they can't, they sometimes put on the show anyway; in one town a public television that is claiming the townspeople's attention is magically destroyed as the Gypsy Lord claims the space for himself.

This fictional wandering carnival exemplifies many of the populist goals--and low-rent techniques--of the Novo filmmakers. Just as the Gypsy Lord strives to pull audiences away from superficial, foreign entertainment, Cinema Novo attempted to radically reshape what many people consider Brazilian cinema--and even Latin American cinema. And, to some extent, they succeeded. In part because of this movement, the Latin American image on film could no longer be reduced to a giant extension of Tijuana, where everyone wears tutti-frutti hats and dances the tango for the whims of vacationing playboys from the north. (This image is presented critically in director Helena Solberg's Carmen Miranda, Bananas Is My Business, screening at 8:45 on October 29.) Where Vera Cruz and runaway Hollywood productions of the 1940s and 1950s (like those of today) would visit lower-class cultures to give their work some Latin spice, Novo filmmakers have fundamentally changed the ingredients for their art. In Black God, White Devil and Bye Bye Brazil, and, more recently, Belly Up (7:00, October 29) and Perfumed Ball (7:00, October 30), we see a wide spectrum of skin tones, classes, behaviors, and geographies--a great and messy portrait befitting a country as complicated and diverse as Brazil.

While they have molded some astoundingly rich works, many Brazilian filmmakers and their creations remain nearly unknown, strangers to their own screens--confined, when lucky, to universities and the international film-festival scene. (Almost none of these films is widely available on American video, and a good number have probably never had a local screening.) To put it mildly, Brazilian economic and political realities of the last 40 years have not been conducive to a flourishing national cinema. Novo had emerged in the early 1960s at a moment of optimism for cultural nationalists, a period that also bred the Tropicália movement in music. But a 1964 military coup followed by the growth of government institutions to investigate and root out "subversive" politicians, intellectuals, and artists put a quick end to that optimism and restored foreign domination to the movie screens.

Many Novo filmmakers went into exile. Rocha, for example, moved across Africa and Europe through much of the 1970s, returned briefly, then departed again to Europe, where he prepared an epic on Napoleon that was to feature Orson Welles, a fellow exile who had once worked in Brazil, in the lead role. Before this could happen, a lung infection struck Rocha down, and he was flown back to Brazil to die, while the military dictatorship still ruled.

Yet through this dark period, filmmakers held on, continuing to turn out films they knew needed to be made. Some were what Rocha had called "these sad, ugly films, these screaming, desperate films where reason does not always prevail." One such politically subversive and ugly work is Hector Babenco's Pixote (7:00, October 22) from 1980. The film takes the homeless children of São Paulo for its actors, as Babenco himself informs us as he straddles the worlds of fiction and reality in an opening prologue.

Truly, all manner of ugliness is on display here, from armed robbery to sexual violence and prostitution, as we follow prepubescent Pixote through a brutal juvenile-delinquent home back to the streets of São Paulo. This is Babenco's ironic indictment of Brazilian civil society, a demonstration of how 15 years of repressive rule had left the country in shambles. The film seems to reflect this chaos on more levels than one: It's full of inadvertent narrative inconsistencies, and discontinuous edits. But Fernando Ramos da Silva, who was killed in suspicious circumstances soon after the film was made, is unforgettable as the lazy-eyed Pixote. No bravura delivery or dialogue distinguishes his performance. Rather, the viewer is captivated by his understated--and often unstated--emotions. Even when confronting horrific acts of violence or enjoying some cheap thrill, the actor rarely squints his wide-open eyes or creases the corners of his lips. He proceeds through the film as a kind of cipher, gazing at the unspeakable atrocities piling up at his feet.

A photocopy of this flat, emotionless countenance appears on Macabea, the main character of Suzana Amaral's 1985, post-Cinema Novo film The Hour of the Star (9:00, October 22). Amid the first open elections in many years, Amaral received some funding from Embrafilme, a state institute that partially resembles the National Endowment for the Arts--as in the way the flow of money can shut like a tap. Her sparse style, surely motivated in part by the sparse material conditions of the shoot, recalls that of Jim Jarmusch (whom she'd met in film school) as well as that of the Belgian minimalist Chantal Akerman. It is a style perfectly suited to depicting the grinding hollowness of lower-class Brazilian life.

Consider an episode during Macabea's first night at her new rooming house. She wakes up coughing, pulls out a bedpan, and sits down to do her business. As she does this, she eats a piece of cold chicken. Amaral composes the scene with a few detached portraits, cutting away to the head or foot of a sleeping roommate nearby--this while the sounds of Macabea's functions and a clock tick continue on the soundtrack. The Hour of the Star furnishes several similar sequences--at the office, in a park, and elsewhere--constantly suggesting the emptiness of Macabea's life. To the extent her birth date coincides closely with the establishment of the dictatorship, this seems to constitute a broader statement about the lives of Brazilians of her generation.

Yet the film is not all about such grim banality: A bit of sweetness and vivacity emerges as Macabea discovers the wonderful world of men. Still, this all comes to naught in a strange ending sequence, which seems to suggest that ferocious social and economic conditions can destroy the hopes of youth.

After decades in the wilderness, Brazilian cinema once again seems to be gaining prominence. Although modest economic successes and new political freedoms have improved conditions for some people, the urgent, populist Novo spirit continues to inform the work of talented young filmmakers, foremost among them Salles, who is riding a string of critical and commercial successes. Last year's Central Station (discussed in a workshop with Salles 11:00 a.m., October 16) enjoyed what might be the most remunerative release of any Brazilian film--which was facilitated in part through its development connections with the Sundance Institute.

The work nonetheless remains close to its Brazilian roots, in part through the application of some familiar Novo tropes. We begin among the lower classes that circulate through the central train station of Rio de Janeiro, joining an old, exhausted woman named Dora and a young boy named Josué. Dora is played by Brazilian screen legend Fernanda Montenegro, who also appears briefly as the bedraggled landlord in House of the Star. After a tangle of events, the pair heads off north across the country.

Central Station moves on to suggest a more hopeful future as we move across Brazil, ostensibly searching for the father the boy has lost, but also seeking the woman's missing spirit. Though glancing backward, the film is never nostalgic; the voyage is vivid and full of majestic images of a nation trying to be reborn out of both ancient and modern traditions--all as seen from an exhilarating trek across long stretches of highway. Would that this film, which spans the great expanse of Brazil and its society, also point toward a wide-open future for the nation's cinema.

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